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Niger Ambush Reignites Senate Debate Over Authorization Of Military Force

The deaths of four U.S. soldiers in Niger earlier this month has again focused attention on whether Congress has ceded too much war fighting authority to the White House.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tells Here & Now's Robin Young the Authorization for the Use of Military Force - AUMF - passed after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks needs to be reconsidered.

While the AUMF allows the U.S. to fight against the perpetrators of 9/11, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have used it to justify attacks against ISIS and other terrorist groups.

"They've used it now to go after dozens of organizations in many many countries around the world in ways that I think are frankly completely unsupported by that authorization," Kaine says. "We shouldn't be at war without a vote of Congress."

Monday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hear from Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson regarding the use of AUMF.

Despite the challenges of defining a war against amorphous, non-state actors, Kaine argues it's essential to conduct this debate in front of the American public.

"The original authorization that said we could take the fight to al-Qaida — the perpetrators of 9/11 — is now being used to take the fight to groups that didn't start 'till 2015 or 2016," Kaine says. "It's basically an executive power grab that has been aided and abetted by a Congress that doesn't want to go on the record and be accountable for a war vote."

Monday's hearing will also help define the scope of U.S. military operations in Africa, Kaine says.

"What the hearing today is going to show is that the American military footprint in Africa that is connected to the anti-terrorism fight — and you know, high-risk activities connected to that fight — is in many more countries than Americans have been told," he says.

The Department of Defense is conducting an investigation into the incident and has faced criticism over its shifting timeline of the attack.

NPR Pentagon Correspondent Tom Bowman reports that a U.S. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says the patrol of U.S. and Niger soldiers was "set up" by local villagers near the border with Mali. It is believed these villagers tipped off fighters associated with ISIS, who carried out the attack.

The presence of U.S. forces in Niger was a surprise to many Americans. As NPR's Greg Myre reports, they highlight the scale of U.S. military operations in Africa:

"The Niger operation typifies U.S. military missions underway in roughly 20 African countries, mostly in the northern third of the continent. They tend to be small, they are carried out largely below the radar, and most are focused on a specific aim: rolling back Islamist extremism.

"In almost all of the missions, the Americans are there to advise, assist and train African militaries — and not to take part in combat. Still, those supporting roles can often take U.S. forces into the field with their African partners, as was the case in Niger."

Kaine says the purpose of Monday's hearing will be to consider a new war authorization to cover these operations.

"The American military has quite a large footprint in Africa, and they believe Africa ... is likely to be a big future battlefield in the war against terror," he says. "I don't think any of the current legal authorities justify the military action."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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